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Polynesia: About the Marquesas Islands

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The traditional lifestyle of the Marquesas Islanders was a mixture of practicality and mythology. It was complex, and in many cases unusual but at all times it was uniquely Marquesan.


A branch of the Polynesians, who termed themselves the Take, spread from the central nucleus in a northeasterly direction. Their ships passed through the darkness of the unknown to emerge where the sun shone on a group of volcanic islands which they hailed as a world of light. The islands discovered were grouped together under the name of Hiva, but centuries later they were renamed by another people, the Marquesas.

The westernmost island of the group is about a thousand miles from Ra'iatea. The archipelago is divided into a southern and a northern group. The inhabited islands of the southern group are Fatu Hiva, Tahuata, and Hiva Oa; those of the northern group are 'Uapou, Nuku Hiva, and Uahuka. A number of smaller islands were inhabited until western man arrived with the host of deadly microbes that seem to accompany him wherever he goes. The ancient population of the islands went into tens of thousands. Captain Porter in 1813 calculated that there were 19,200 warriors in Nuku Hiva, and he estimated the total population of the group at 80,000. This was perhaps an overestimate, but, in 1904, the population had diminished to 4,000, and the census of 1911 gave it as 2,890. Venereal diseases, tuberculosis, and epidemics were introduced by ships into what had been a world of light so far as disease was concerned. No branch of the Polynesians has suffered more for his kindness and hospitality to Europeans than have the Marquesans.

The Marquesas are rugged islands with an abundance of basaltic stone which provided tools for the early settlers. From a backbone of mountainous ridges reaching an elevation of 4,000 feet on 'Uapou, the streams have cut deep valleys with almost no level land beside their beds. The ridges between the valleys from precipitous walls which isolate the valleys from each other and slope steeply to the sea, leaving little level land along the coast. The ends of the valleys form bays, but there are no protecting coral reefs.

Hanavave Bay, Marquesas Islands, 1912

Hanavave Bay, Marquesas Islands, 1981

Legends refer to the first comers as the Take, for take means the cause, the root. They were the cause of life that spread from the center of Polynesia to take root in the deep isolated valleys of the rugged isles of Hiva. They took root so long ago that the legends which have filtered down through the generations have left the names of the first discoverers and their voyaging ships behind with a bygone age. The sacred chants which correspond to abridged forms of the log books of deep-sea mariners, record the names of various lands through which they passed in the seas to the southwest. Among these are Havai'i, Upo'u, Vevau, and Fiti-nui which may be recognized as the ancient forms of Ra'iatea, Taha'a, Porapora, and Great-Tahiti. These ancient names were given to localities in the new home and just as the name New England in the eastern part of the United States bears witness to origin in England so do the names in the Marquesan chants and those of local districts point definitely to the Society Islands as the last place whence the people came.

At the center of settlement in each island group there should be a monument to the leader of the first settlers or a simple shrine to the unknown discoverer. There are many of Polynesian blood today who would thrill to lay a fragrant wreath at the foot of some plain stone pillar in honour of their own unknown. Perhaps some faint vibration from the dim past might stir our dry bones or gently touch our heart strings to a better appreciation of our bygone ancestors even though their names be forgotten.

Marquesan myths had evidently been partially forgotten when they were first recorded in writing long after European contact. The creation myths lack many details that the old priests must have known. However, some of the general themes have been transmitted in a confused form that may yet be translated by those who can interpret the displaced sequence of events.

Creation begins with Papa-'una (Upper-stratum) and Papa-'a'o (Lower-stratum) as primary parents. Their offspring were numerous, and among them were Atea, Tane, Tu, 'Ono-tapu (Rongo-tapu), Tonofiti, Tiki, and Aumia. The Upper-stratum and the Lower-stratum were very close together, and their children were born in darkness. The children rebelled and decided to force their parents apart and so let light into their world. Ru, who propped up the Sky-father in Tahiti and the Cook Islands, is absent in Marquesan myth, but his place is taken by Tonofiti who pushed the Upper-stratum on high. Thus the gods, born of the two primary parents, assumed their functions in a world of light.

The Marquesan myth departs from the pattern previously observed in the one Papa married another Papa and produced Atea. In other islands, Atea married Papa, but since Papa was already given in marriage, the Marquesan school created the new personage, Atanua, as wife for Atea. Te Tumu and Fa'ahotu, who played an important role at this period in other myths, are conspicuously absent. The Take (Source) as applied to the early people who spread to Hiva, has been substituted for Te Tumu (Source). Fa'ahotu had either not been invented in the central area before the Take left or had been forgotten, else the Marquesan school had surely mated Atea with Fa'ahotu and so saved themselves the trouble of inventing Atanua.

Atea retained importance by being made the direct ancestor of man. Atea also married various personified females and produced mountains, rocks, earth; various food plants such as coconuts, breadfruit, chestnuts, other non-edible plants; and the pig. He was also the father of the months of the luna cycle. Thus Atea was given the procreating function attributed to Tiki in the myths of Tuamotu, Mangareva, New Zealand, and Easter Island.

Of the other progeny of the Upper-stratum and the Lower-stratum, Tu functioned in his normal capacity as god of war, and those who took particular part in his ritual were alluded to as the Ati-tu (the Tribe-of-Tu), 'Ono or 'Ono-tapu, who appears as Rongo, god of peace and agriculture, in other islands, is merely a legendary character without divine attributes. It may be that the Marquesans were so warlike that they had no use for a god of peace and that their cultivable lands were so limited that they had little for which to thank a god of agriculture. That Rongo had power at one time is indicated by the legendary account of his defeat of the god Tohetika who, as Toutika, finds a place in the Cook Islands' pantheon.

Tane is another of the important gods of Opoa who lost his divinity in the Marquesas. His association with craftsmen, however, is dimly remembered in local legends associating him with a sacred adze. He is also associated with people of light skin and hair and thus, in historical times, was held to be the ancestor of the white race.

The local gods, Manatu meaning thought and Pupuke meaning the source or welling-up of knowledge, were the patrons of the sacred chants; and Pupuke was the god of one of the houses of the inspirational priests. In New Zealand, Rua-i-te-pupuke occurs as a mythical character who is a source of wisdom.

One of the most striking features of Marquesan myth is the absence of Tana'oa (Tangaroa) among the progeny of Papa'una and Papa'a'o. He functions, however, as the god of the winds, the sea, and fishing. As Tangaroa occurs as the god of the sea and of fishing in New Zealand, it would appear that these were his true departments when the ancestors of the Marquesans and the New Zealanders left central Polynesia and that his elevation as creator belongs to a later stage of development in central Polynesia.

~ Carved Marquesan Tiki ~

Some myths elevate Tiki as the primary ancestor of man. He is stated to have lived in Havaiki without a wife. He made a mound of sand into the form of a child. Returning three days later, he found that the mound had developed into a living woman.

He named her Hina-tu-na-one (Maid-standing-on-the-sands) and took her to wife. From this couple were born the Upper-stratum and the Lower-stratum who, in turn, gave birth to Atea and Atanua. Tiki created the island of Nuku Hiva by invocation and placed Atea and Atanua upon it.

The Nuku Hiva people made images in stone of Tiki and used them in their worship. It is most probable that this version has been compounded by the later Marquesans out of dislocated fragments to satisfy the inquiries of modern seekers of ancient lore.

It is certainly most unlikely that any old-time priest or historian would have departed so greatly from the pattern that exists in other islands.  

Another Tiki myth states that the woman he made out of sand or earth was named Hina-mata-one (Earth-maid). By this wife he had a daughter for whom he built a separate house in order that he might visit her secretly to commit incest with her. This is the version that is held in the Tuamotus and Mangareva, and it conforms to a more general pattern. It is evident that the Marquesan school had the original myth in which Tiki is credited with being the direct ancestor of man, but modern historians blundered in substituting Atea for Tiki.

One version of Marquesan genealogy indicated that there are one hundred and fifty-nine generations commencing with 'Ani-motua (Rangi-matua), the Sky-father. Vatea (Atea) and his wife Atanua occur on the fiftieth generation from the Sky-father, Tiki occurs on the seventy-first generation, so that the order in sequence of Vatea and Tiki is orthodox. If assessed at twenty-five years a generation, this genealogy goes back to 2000 B.C. which, of course, is impossible. It includes natural phenomena, concepts of creation, the growth from roots, material objects in the sea and on land, the winds, and various lands, which in the form of males are mated to females. It is a confused list of evolutionary processes-confused because the teachings of the ancient Marquesan school of learning cannot be interpreted.

The genealogies were learned and taught by experts termed o'ono (orongo). They used a device of twined coconut fiber termed a ta'o mata to which were attached long cords with knots to represent the various generations of the genealogy. A resemblance has been seen to the quipus by which the Peruvians, with knotted cords, kept or calculated their business accounts. The Marquesans are held to have used their device as an aid to memorizing their genealogies, but, even though fresh knots may have been added as children were born to a lineage, the knots in themselves could not give the cue to the individual names. The knotted cords, like the carved knobs of the wooden genealogical sticks of New Zealand, were used for spectacular effect. The number of knots on a cord or the knobs on a stick might indicate the number of generations in a lineage, and it was a fitting climax when the reciter ended the last generation on the final knot or knob.

Among the legendary characters are the Maui brethren, of whom there are seven in the Marquesas. The eldest was Maui-mua and the youngest, Maui-tikitiki. Between were Maui-mu'i, Maui-pae, and Maui-taha. If we substitute Maui-roto for Maui-mu'i, we have exactly the same names as in the New Zealand family of five. The two extras are Maui-vaveka and Maui-hakatata-mai; these were probably alternative names for two of an original family of five but, in the course of time, they came to be regarded as distinct individuals, so raising the number of the family to seven.

Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands, 1910

In the Marquesas, Maui-tikitiki, the youngest, fished up various islands, obtained fire from his grandfather Mauike in the lower regions, and snared the sun with a noose of human hair to delay his passage across the sky in order that Maui's laundry might have time to dry. He converted himself into a pigeon ('upe) to recover his wife. In New Zealand, he changed himself into a pigeon (rupe) in order to discover his sister.

Coming down to the period of legendary human ancestors, a number of names have been recorded as early settlers of the six inhabited islands. These ancestors are held to have arrived in Hiva between the tenth and the twelfth centuries, but there is no record of the names of their ships. Of these, Mahuta occurs in the genealogies, and it is interesting to note that an ancestor Mahuta occurs in the legends of Rakahanga and Tongareva.

It is believed that the first settlement in the land of light was on Hivaoa (Hiva Oa) in the ancient district of Vevau, now comprising the valleys of Atuona, Te Hutu, Ta'aoa, and Tahuaka. Here in the most fertile section of the most attractive island, the Take settled themselves; here they established a cultural center, where they gathered together and consolidated their mythology and traditional lore into a definite pattern.

In the narrow valleys of Vevau the people increased and formed themselves into tribes. Some of them migrated to nearby islands and founded new tribes. In the north, Taipi-vai on the island of Nuku Hiva became a second cultural centre. Yet Vevau retained its pre-eminence as the first settlement. The departing place of spirits, a western promontory named Kiukiu, was near Vevau. The souls of the dead from outer islands had to return first to Kiukiu before setting out on their long journey to the westward. The people of Vevau called themselves Na-iki, a contracted form of Na-'iki which, translated into the basic language, is Nga-ariki (the High-chiefs). Thus, like the descendants of the first settlers of Mangaia who called themselves Ngariki, the Marquesan Na-iki, by their very name, claimed priority and superiority over all other tribes. They might be defeated in war by other less ancient tribes, but they could not be robbed of their illustrious name and the achievement for which it stood.

In the isles of Hiva the Marquesans developed their own civilization, built upon the basic culture brought from central Polyensia. Hivaoa (Hiva Oa) became the center for stone masonry. However, the crafts spread in an even pattern throughout the group. Expeditions penetrated to the Tuamotus and Cook Islands and farther to the east where they influenced the culture of Mangareva and Easter Island. It is probable that some of the voyages north to Hawai'i passed through the Marquesas. Thus the Marquesas became a center for the development and dissemination of culture in the east, corresponding to Havai'i in the center of Polynesia.

From Havai'i the Marquesans brought the pig and the fowl, but the dog was either left behind or died out. They also brought the paper mulberry and various food plants, among which the breadfruit was given preference. The surplus of each crop was stored in pits lined with banana leaves, where the fruit fermented and kept indefinitely. Besides being a reserve food, the breadfruit trees were so prolific that fermented breadfruit became the staple article of food. The preserved breadfruit (ma) was kneaded with the hands, wrapped in leaves, cooked in the earth oven, and then pounded with stone pounders and thinned with water to form a paste (popoi). This treatment led to the use of a stone pounder with a flared circular base running up into a rounded neck for grasping with the hand and surmounted by a knob to prevent the hand from slipping upward. These pounders were so sought after by curio hunters that they became scarce in the islands. The Germans with their keen commercial instinct imported rock from the Marquesas to Germany and manufactured a large number of pounders to sell back to the Marquesans. The Marquesans of modern times quickly adopted the commercial methods of western civilization and sold the imported articles to tourists and traders as old, original specimens. There are several of these in Bishop Museum that serve to illustrate western progress in Polynesia.

Next to the New Zealanders, the Marquesans were the best carvers in Polynesia. They carved their wooden utensils and weapons with a richness of intricate designs. But they were not content with wood and bone as media for artistic expression, and they transferred some of their best designs to the human body in the form of tattooing. The body was completely tattooed from the upper limits of the hair to the toenails. It seems as if the early artists could not bear to waste any portion of the human canvas. In carving and tattooing, original motifs, including the curve and the single spiral, were developed.

In their houses as well as in their art the Marquesans developed an original form. The roof descended in a continuous oblique line to the ground at the back, whereas the front raised wall was normal. The horizontal poles to brace the rafters were placed on the inside of the rafters instead of on the outside as in Tahiti. The houses were built on level stone platforms extending out from the slopes of the deeply cut valleys. The house was built on a raised site at the back of the platform with an open court on a slightly lower level before it. On the court, some large flat stones were erected on an inclined plane to form backrests. Thus the father of the family and any distinguished guests could sit at ease on the stone pavement and recline against the stone backrest while they gossiped or watched the evening life of the valley pass before them. 

In ornaments the Marquesan craftsmen displayed great initiative. They made ear ornaments of exquisite design and workmanship from the teeth of the sperm whale. Their breast ornaments and head-dresses were unique. Armlets, anklets, and even kilts were fashioned from locks of human hair skilfully attached to braided bands of coconut fibre. The black hair of such ornaments was curled in a permanent wave by rolling the hair tightly around a wooden rod, wrapping it in green leaves, and subjecting it to heat in an earth oven.

The hair of the face was also used for ornaments but here a grey colour was preferred. Tahitians used grey hair from the tail of dogs to form tasseled fringes for breast ornaments, and the New Zealanders used similar tassels to ornament cloaks and weapons. The Marquesans had no dogs so they used old men as a source of raw material. When a grandfather received news of a prospective grandchild, he allowed his beard to grow to provide material for making ornaments for this child.

One of the peculiar head ornaments of the Marquesans is a forehead circlet consisting of alternative plaques of carved turtle shell and curved marine shell. These were fastened to a twined band of coconut fibre with circular pieces of pearl shell fixed to it. Such head-dresses came into great demand after European contact. However, turtle shell was scarce and difficult to carve, and pearl-shell discs were hard to shape and drill with holes. So Europeans provided the Marquesans with carved vulcanite plaques and shirt buttons with which they made many of the head-dresses that today repose unsuspected in the world's museums. 

The Marquesans built stone terraces termed me'ae for their religious ceremonies. Here human sacrifices were offered to the gods, and images in wood and stone were displayed, representing those gods who had been created in the image of man.

For these sculptures a conventional form was developed locally. The flexed lower limbs and hands clasped on the abdomen are shared by other Polynesian regions.

The large eyes defined by a low, circular flange like spectacles, the nose with wide nostrils, the wide straight mouth defined by parallel lines evenly curved at the ends, the ear with the lobe enhanced by single spirals, and the hands with the five fingers curved in to meet each other in pairs on either side of the middle finger are all elements of a local technique.

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